Netflix recruits Google in global war on cyber pirates

Netflix's declared crackdown goes beyond customers who hop virtual borders to watch shows restricted to other countries. It has also declared war on cyber pirates and it’s turning to Google for help.

The company crackdown includes sites that link to unauthorized Netflix shows

test (Peter Mountain/Disney/Associated Press)

The Netflix crackdown is much bigger than you think.

Its hit list goes beyond customers who hop virtual borders to watch shows restricted to other countries.

The video streaming service has also declared war on cyber pirates and it's turning to Google for help.

As first reported by the online publication, TorrentFreak, Netflix is going after websites that post links to pirated copies of its content that people can stream or download, often for free.

The plan of attack: The global anti-piracy company, Vobile, on behalf of Netflix, reports to Google the offending links and asks the search giant to remove them from search results. That way, the unauthorized material is much harder to find.

It's just one of the creative weapons content creators of all sorts are using to stamp out piracy.

According to Google's Transparency Report, between Dec. 1 and March 28, Vobile made requests to remove more than 96,000 links to allegedly pirated content where "Netflix2" is the copyright owner.

The links are often associated with original Netflix programs such as the series House of Cards and Narcos, and the film Beasts of No Nation.

CBC News asked Netflix whether it had any comment on its strategy. "We don't have anything to add on this,"  spokesperson Marlee Tart replied in an email.

Netflix — friend to pirates no more

Tech analyst Patrick O'Rourke says it's out of character for Netflix to be targeting online pirates.

"They seem to have changed their tune a little bit," the Toronto-based writer for the tech site MobileSyrup told CBC News.

O'Rourke said that previously the company stated pirated material wasn't all that bad because it could eventually lead to paying customers.

For example, he says, someone views a free, unauthorized episode of House of Cards, enjoys the show and then signs up for Netflix, finding "it's cheap, it's convenient, it's much easier" than navigating the world of illegal downloading.

But he believes now that Netflix is turning out many more of its own original shows, it wants to safeguard its product.

"Protecting the digital rights of that content is more important to them because they have invested more money into it," O'Rourke said.

Google gets swamped

Asking Google to remove links to allegedly pirated material from search results is not new. The company states on its site that it regularly receives requests.

However, the surge in requests over the past year has been exponential. According to Google Transparency Report's most recent numbers, the company received more than 20.5 million removal requests — just for the week of March 14.

However, O'Rourke questions the effectiveness of this strategy. He believes that many people who access unauthorized content know where to find it.

"They're not Googling it, they're going to specific sites," he said.

AMC marks its territory

AMC is taking a different approach to piracy — it's marking its territory.

Its series The Walking Dead is purportedly one of the most pirated shows on television.

To combat the problem, the U.S. network recently announced that it will be forensically watermarking its programs. The secret marker will allow AMC "to trace the source of potential illegal copies of each video," Steve Pontillo, chief technology officer, said in a statement.

"This enhanced content security is a powerful deterrent against piracy and protects our revenue," he added.

O'Rourke says he doesn't know much about watermarking technology because it's a guarded process. But he still questions how much of a mark it will make.

"I know there's a lot of smart people out there and a cottage industry of people that pirate things, so I'm sure they have ways of circumventing pretty much anything," he said.

How to sink the pirates?

O'Rourke believes the only effective solution is to offer people a cheap and easy way to view content — one that is more appealing than unauthorized downloading, which carries risks and can be cumbersome.

"The way you combat piracy is you offer an affordable streaming service that's easy to navigate," he said.

Netflix typically costs Canadian customers $10 a month. The company itself used to boast about how it took a bite out of illicit downloading.

"There's been a notable reduction in piracy in countries where we operate such as the U.S. and Canada," company spokeswoman Tart told CBC News in an email last year.

But that trend may go into reverse now that Netflix recently started cracking down on virtual border hoppers.

Due to region-exclusive content licensing agreements, the company doesn't allow customers to watch shows available only in other countries.

Many people who border hop now find themselves blocked from the streaming service.

As a result, social media is overrun with upset customers pledging to return to underground methods to get their content.

"Nice move @netflix. Long live piracy!" someone recently retweeted.

"Good job guys, way to make piracy the only option once more," echoed another person.

Netflix's ultimate solution is one it pledges to be working on — making all its content available across the globe with no virtual borders.

Until then, the war on virtual border hopping and perhaps even ramped up piracy will continue.


Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Based in Toronto, Sophia Harris covers consumer and business for CBC News web, radio and TV. She previously worked as a CBC videojournalist in the Maritimes where she won at Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact:


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